Saturday, October 9, 2010

Cities Part 3: A Grand Experiment in Simulation - Las Vegas

Las Vegas and New Orleans are among our nation’s most unique cities.[1] In a sense, I know that they are both one of a kind. But in my mind, I have always grouped them: Places someone would go for an epic bachelor party and, if I was invited, I would have to decline.[2] So when my work travel schedule sent me to both within a couple months, I thought it might be a fun exercise in compare and contrast.

This was not my first time in either of these cities, but it might as well have been. My only other time in Vegas was for a 3 day conference. I stayed on the edge of town,[3] got sick on the flight in and stayed in my hotel bed when I wasn’t at the conference. I walked over a mile to the conference each day through low end red light districts and I could not have been less impressed. It just seemed like a ‘dirty little town.’ But I knew that I hadn’t given Vegas a fair chance and looked forward to inevitably getting back there someday.

I have flown into New Orleans a half dozen times. I go to Vicksburg, MS a lot for work[4] and after Katrina it was $1,200 cheaper to fly through New Orleans and drive to Vicksburg…so I did.[5] But these trips were immediately post-Katrina and I was mainly in the suburbs, so the city mostly made me sad, but I looked forward to getting a chance to experience the city on its own terms. It took me years to get back to either city…and this summer, I got back to both. I’ll cover Vegas in this post and a New Orleans post will follow in a couple weeks.

My trip to Vegas began with a study in contrast of its own. For convoluted reasons, I flew directly to Vegas from my childhood home in rural Northern NY. Since I have lived there the family farms have almost entirely disappeared.[6] Farms have either made the transition to industrial farms or they have gone fallow or they have gone Amish (because only a lifestyle of radical simplicity and communal labor can be make a go of the family farm any more).

So Sunday morning I went for a run and on my way home I passed 14 Amish buggies on their way to church.[7] That night, I was in Las Vegas.

The event that brought me to Vegas[8] also brought two of my closest work friends and several other people I know from across the country there. Most of what Vegas has to offer could not interest me less. But fortunately, I my friends and I have one shared interest for which this town provides unparalleled opportunities…poker. So the first two evenings revolved around poker.

The World Series of Poker was going on at the Rio while we were in town. The tournament that was going on the night we went out was a $40,000 buy in[9], short handed table tournament.[10] This was fortuitous, because this is one of the most popular events with the pros. Since the explosion of popularity of the WSOP the pros have sought out refuge in the events that emphasize skill over luck and attracts fewer internet players. So we saw ‘everyone.’ Now, I can only name 5 or 6 professionals…and saw them (Phil Ivy, Daniel Nigranue, Furgeson, Lilly…um, maybe it is not quite six) . But my friends pointed out a couple dozen more. It was fun.

The next night we played in a big tournament at the Venetian. I ended up at the same table with one of my buddies and we both played really well through the first couple hours…and then poker happened. We both got bad beat, but it we had a blast.[11]

The last night in town we ‘did the strip.’ The strip is impressive. Billion dollar casinos. Giant monuments simulating ancient Rome or modern Paris.

Roller coasters inside of buildings…

…chocolate fountains…

…and, of course, the water show (which is even more impressive to a bunch of hydraulic engineers).

It was impressive, but not really beautiful in any way I could discover. The overwhelming impression that Vegas gives you is that of simulated reality. Everywhere you look, something is trying to be something it actually isn’t. There are cheesy replicas of Ancient Rome, Venice, and Paris (complete with a scale model of the Eifel Tower).

The air is artificially oxygenated, there is conspicuous water usage for a desert community, and no list of things that aren’t what they seem would be complete without mentioning boobs. Even the buses were inexplicably decorated to look like light rail.

Come to think of it, poker is fundamentally an exercise in simulation, as you are almost always trying to represent the opposite of whatever your situation of power is.

But the ironic (aihctbk[12]) thing about all this simulacrum is that it generates an environment where people heedlessly engage in being who they actually are.[13] Somehow, being surrounded by simulated reality produces license to drop the social coping superstructure and do the sorts of things that ‘stay in Vegas.’[14]

My conclusion on Vegas is that it is more interesting than my first visit suggested, but it is still one of my least favorite cities.[15] One of the things I think I am pretty good at is enjoying cities that seem unremarkable. My method is to try to figure out “why do the people who live here love it here?” Why don’t they move somewhere else? But Las Vegas is a town that exists almost entirely for people who do not live there. It is the first town I have encountered that completely defies my method.

However, while there was no discernable local community that I could anonymously experience, I ended up enjoying Vegas because I got to experience it with an imported community of people I enjoy.

This post was written while listening to the Vast Pandora channel

[1] This is a part of an ongoing series I am doing where I reflect on the various cities my work travel takes me to. I describe the motivation of the series here. Also, I will continue posting retro-journal entries on the Odyssey blog for another week or so. Indecently, if you are new to this blog, it is worth noting that it is not primarily a travel blog…it only seems that way because travel has supplanted philosophical and cultural reflection in my life recently.
[2] I had a group of friends that used to take an annual trip to LV. Once, they were making plans while I was hanging out and one of them told me “You know Stan, you would totally be welcome to come with us. It’s just that we gamble, golf, drink and go to strip clubs…and you kind of aren’t into any of those things.” I expressed appreciation for the invitation but affirmed their instinct to exclude me.
[3] It was just after 9/11 and I had just started at my current job. The hotel was $12 per night and the whole trip cost under $250. I didn’t feel like I could ask my work to send me because I had just started, but the conference looked incredibly helpful (and it was) so I planned to take vacation and pay for it. When my work found out why I was taking vacation, they sent me.
[4] The other main lab for my agency is there…and I did my PhD research at their facility.
[5] Once the guy in front of me was complaining about how everyone in the federal government was only self interested and could not pass up opportunities to waste money…as I stood in line, waiting to voluntarily drive 7 hours round trip, on my own time, to save my project $1200.
[6] This was going on when I was a kid, but now the process is mostly complete.
[7] There was a fun trend among the buggies. The first ones had old people in them and traveled slowly (I easily outran the first of them). As I passed the buggies, the families got younger and had more children and were traveling faster (and were, in general, friendlier). I thought it was pretty fun that even Amish families have trouble getting out of the house for church on Sunday mornings.
[8] Every three years all of the federal agencies that encounter sediment problems have a joint sediment conference. This without exception is the most helpful professional event I attend and I go every time. This year I presented two papers and was a judge for the student paper contest (which was way more interesting than it sounds…but sadly I am sworn to secrecy. Um, seriously, I’m not kidding. The deliberations of this contest are strictly confidential. Weird, right?) I know that a federal conference in Vegas sounds like an atrocious boondoggle, but one of the biggest problems I see in the engineering community is the lack of technical development. There are very few forums where we can learn from each other’s mistakes and successes. The journals have become playgrounds for academics such that most practicing engineers couldn’t read one even if, by some miracle, there was a paper that they might find helpful. Conferences are really the only place that we find out about new technology (or, in my case, get the word out on new technology), hear about catastrophic mistakes, meet the people who could solve our problems and get exposed to new ways of thinking about our field. I’m almost certain that a good conference pays for itself several times simply in increased efficiency, contacts made and mistakes avoided. If I ever have a private firm, I will consider good conferences (and, yes, there are bad ones) for self motivated employees a good investment.
[9] One friend tried to win a seat in the Main event in a tournament going on in the other room, and we went to watch. But it turned out to be a fun night to be there.
[10] 6 people per table instead of 10.
[11] The highlight of the evening involved a boisterous Drunk Canadian at our table. Now, since I was just there to have fun, I loved that our new Canadian friend who was sucking back vodkas and red bulls at the rate of about 5 per hour got the table talking…but the serious poker players hated it. They like a somber mood where they can intimidate. Several serious players were visibly flustered by the banter and my buddy and I think it worked to our advantage. Anyway, the highlight of the evening was when another inebriated gentlemen with a European accent joined our table and took the banter up a notch. So the Canadian asked “My friend, which part of Russia are you from?” To which he replied, quickly and with a smile “The German part.”
[12] I always want to use the word ironic in its contemporary vernacular even though I know that it is ‘wrong’ because I lack a really good alternate linguistic construction. In a sense, ironic has expanded its semantic range to fill a linguistic gap. So, from now on in this blog, instead of a long self justifying footnote every time I use ironic “as it has come to be known” I will simply include the abbreviation (aihctbk)
[13] This makes more sense in light of my thoughts on ‘being yourself’.
[14] Mark Driscoll has a great line about this. He likes to say, ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas, unless it is itchy.’
[15] My friend asked me if I would bring my wife back. I thought about it and decided, I would spend a night on the strip with my wife if Vegas was on my way somewhere, but it is not worth its own trip.


JMBower said...

I'm wondering, toward the start, if you meant "Incidentally" instead of "Indecently". Please don't think me too horrible a person for finding the latter remarkably more amusing and apropos.

As per Vegas, I may have to slightly disagree. Vegas to me, is not a facade so much as an exaggeration. It takes all the silly facades of normal life and blows them up to such ridiculous extreme that they simultaneously feel both familar and alien. To me, Vegas is like good satire-by-hyperbole. IN that sense, it feels somewhat truer than a lot of the (sub)urban culture in more "demure" cities like Houston. Houston may put on its airs, but its deceptions and facades are far more sefl-serious and co-dependant than Vegas. The great thing about Vegas is that Vegas knows its Vegas. It celebrates the fact. It doesn't hide its dirty laundry. It puts it on 150 ft billboards and has Wayne Newton sing showtunes in front of it. I wrote a post a while back before I got married about the excesses of the American megawedding, in which I extolled the virtues of Vegas wedding chapel Elvis. My point was that as hyperbolized as he was, you knew where you stood with chapel Elvis. chapel Elvis was blown out of proportion, but he knew it, you knew it, and there was no hidden corners. Everybody knows what chapel Elvis is all about, and no one's fooling anyone. Chapel Elvis is a paragon of virtue compared to some of the wedding industry representatives we dealt with in our wedding process. Chapel Elvis is a lot like Vegas to me. Satire is satire because at the heart, it shows the fallacies of the "normal".

Joel said...

Vegas, to me, was wonderful. Given my great love of cheesy and shiny and neon and Americana and all around over-the-top-ness, my weekend there was fantastic. Every time I turned a corner, there was something new and wonderful and/or horrible to take a picture of, and also the slot machines kept giving me money, and the food! The food! Going to restaurants that I've read about in magazines and eating food from people that I see on "Top Chef" was awesomely fun for a pop-culture junkie with a bent toward foodie-ism.

On the other hand, while I loved visiting, I would hate to live in Vegas. The town had no soul, and every place I went had a transitory feelings, like the casino might close and be knocked down at any time to be replaced by another, larger, shinier one. Maybe it was because I just stuck to the Strip and the places around it for the most part, but I never got a sense that there was any feeling of community pride or belonging. It was like being in a 24 hour amusement park that let you sleep over.

stanford said...

Yeah, I can appreciate both of your ideas. I get that it is a remarkable place. And Justin's 'authenticity in self awarness' angle has merit. It just kind of defies my catagories of experiencing each place I visit as an experiment in human situatedness. As Joel points out, there is no situatedness. I think the more aware a place is of my presence (as a visitor) the less likely I am to be engaged by it.